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FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: The UWI debate


Dr Frances Chandler

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: The UWI debate

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The University of the West Indies (UWI) issue has certainly struck a nerve with Barbadians. There are few if any other issues that have drawn such debate. It’s important for democracy that the public has a say in decisions on social issues such as this, so it’s encouraging that Barbadians are speaking out.
There have been excellent ideas put forward, but of course the debate would’ve been much more useful before the Budget Speech and might have helped Government to come up with a more widely accepted proposal. 
The case study by Professor Andrew Downes, the paid release UWI Growth Shared Process and the letter to THE NATION newspaper by Mr Victor Cooke, a former bursar at UWI, Cave Hill, are all enlightening. Sir Hilary states that the governance system, where UWI “benefits from the keen financial eye and parental voice of the Government of Barbados, is a treasured asset of the university”, but it seems obvious that successive administrations have not been as vigilant as they should have been and this has led to the quandary we face today. Even though monitoring structures were put in place, the players apparently did not perform as they should have. Mr Cooke says: “I posit that if proper administrative procedures had been followed, we in Barbados would not have had a bitter pill to swallow . . .”
It’s obvious that the present situation didn’t happen overnight and the powers that be should have seen it coming and put the necessary corrective measures in place gradually so as to avert the big crisis we face today. If Governments had been proactive and visionary rather than reactive, perhaps fees could have been phased in gradually so that prospective students and their parents could have planned more effectively for their education.
I don’t agree that because the Right Honourable Errol Barrow introduced so-called “free” education at all levels that it must necessarily continue regardless of present economic conditions.
In fact, Barbados, one of the smallest nations of the world, is one of the very few which provide “free” tertiary education.
Governments must stop putting politics first and realize that making bold political statements can sometimes come back to haunt them. Sustainability must be a priority. Ambassador Robert Morris, in a laudable and frank but surprising statement for a former trade unionist, pointed out that decisions on wages made over the years have not always been sustainable. This would also seem to be the case with “free” tertiary education.
UWI may not be a parastatal institution, but as Sir Hilary says, it is not a stand-alone institution. As such, the affairs of the university need to be more transparent to the public, who, after all, contribute to its upkeep. The public needs to be more educated about the 2012-2017 Strategic Plan, and the research being undertaken by the university. The foreign exchange earned by UWI via such areas as courses for international students and international symposia held here must be documented and made public. Of course, the spin-offs in accommodation and spending by visiting relatives are difficult to measure but must be publicized.
While the expansion in physical structures at the university is impressive, the question has been asked whether this expansion has been too fast. If the public is not informed on how these structures are funded and maintained, there will always be questions.
It seems at the moment, UWI is somewhat of a closed book, but the ongoing debate has helped to some extent to correct this.
Another question which must be asked is if the other territories benefiting from UWI are up to date in their contributions. Such a problem has often arisen with LIAT and the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute.
Furthermore, the public must be clear on the distinction between economic cost and tuition cost and whether funds are being efficiently used. As Sir Hilary acknowledges, “No institution can rightly say that there isn’t room for greater efficiency and quality enhancement”. The university must continually search for such improvements.
Finally, Government, the public, alumni and corporate Barbados must take an active interest in the university. As an alternative to “free” education, my suggestion would be for Government and the private sector to award more scholarships to students who show real promise during their first year,  thus providing an incentive for students to achieve.

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